The Price Of Male Shame

Photo: OSTILL is Franck Camhi / Shutterstock
The Price Of Male Shame

The language I have to discuss my experiences feels like a very gender essentialist view of human beings in many ways. Because this is my blog, I do not have language outside of my own experiences to express them otherwise. In no way does this encapsulate the range, depth, and complexity of human experience, particularly in regard to gender. 

When I was in the 8th grade, I fell in love with my dad’s friend, Patrick. Patrick was 6’5, 250 pounds, and 42 years old. I was so in love with him. He would come over to the house, and I would perch on my computer in the living room, listening to every word he and my dad would say in the kitchen. Sometimes, if my dad stepped away to the bathroom or took a phone call, he would come to say hi to me, ask me what I was doing on the computer, tell me about his daughter. “How old are you?” he would ask me every time. “13,” I would answer. And every time his response was, “I have a daughter your age.” I never met her.

Eventually, Patrick added me on Facebook. I was so giddy when he messaged me. He said hello and, once again, asked me how old I was. 13. We messaged back and forth the entire evening. He asked me about school, my parents, what I wanted to do when I grew up, if I had a boyfriend. I was so worried he would fall asleep or want to end the conversation; I tried my best to entertain him. At 3 a.m., he asked for my phone number. “Can I call you?”

We started to talk every evening on the phone. I wanted to be interesting to him. He wanted to know all about my exploits. “Do you have a boyfriend, Maya? Am I boring you, Maya? Are you a virgin, Maya? What do you like, Maya?” I didn’t have any exploits yet, so I started making them up. Elaborate stories about sneaking out of my house to lie with boys, gruesome accounts of the things I would do to him. Graphic details. I knew everything because I was a voracious reader.

I read CosmoGo Ask AliceGossip Girl. My mom was constantly fretting about why my books had 16+ age ranges when I was 10 years old, but I loved to read, and I wanted to learn. So I would read, and I would recount these stories back to Patrick every night, pretending they were about me. In my stories, I was a ravaging, uncontrollable SLUT. I slept with every man I encountered, and I did dirty, terrible, no good things. No amount of dirty satisfied Patrick, though.

He wanted more stories, more details, more graphic exploits. “What else? What else? What else?” I had to read faster, I had to turn to darker depictions to satisfy his cravings — anything to get him to stay on that phone.

And the thing about Patrick is he really wanted to help me. He loved to give me advice. To tell me about his teenage years, when he did things similar to what I’d described. He talked me through my own stories, giving me ideas for the next ones. In the 3 a.m.’s, 42-year-old Patrick told me I needed to respect myself, that I shouldn’t be giving myself away to men, that I needed to stop having so much sex. I would cry on the phone with him, “I don’t know how to stop.” And real tears would be streaming down my face.

Of course, at 13 years old, the only sex I was having was the stuff I concocted in my head. In reality, I was a virgin, but I was starting to get confused; the boundaries between my fantasy sex world with Patrick and my real life, where I hadn’t done more than kissed a guy, were getting blurred.

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And what I didn’t know at the time, as I was wailing on the phone with Patrick, is he was teaching me an important life lesson I had not yet learned: male shame.

As I learned over the course of our conversations, Patrick was very ashamed of himself. He was divorced, he was abused as a child, he was a bad father, he’d resorted to multi-level marketing because he wasn’t making money in his job, his doctor told him he needed to lose 30 pounds. With me, Patrick got to be the hero.

Patrick was creating a big fantasy world where he not only got to hear my sexual exploits, but he could pretend he was saving me from them. He got to be in control of something, finally. He got to feel empowered. He got to be needed by someone relatively (and legally) helpless, all while staying jobless and divorced and overweight and absent to his daughter.

I was Patrick’s perfect victim; an ideal conduit of shame. I wanted Patrick to like me, and I wanted him to give me attention, and I didn’t want him to be sad. If I could give him what he wanted, he would be happy, and then I wouldn’t have to be scared of him not calling anymore.

Patrick was just one in a long, long line of men I met whose shame played a prominent role in my life.

When I was 19, I was dating a guy in his late twenties. He worked at Google. One day he invited me to visit him at his workplace. I was so excited I put on my favorite outfit and gold glitter eyeshadow. That was the thing you did at UC Santa Cruz when you really wanted to impress someone: gold glitter eyeshadow.

It took me all morning to get dressed, and then I drove two hours from campus to meet him at work. I blasted music in the car and stopped to get boba for us on the way. When I met him in the parking lot, I watched him gulp, tighten up immediately. His voice changed, he grew internal; something was so wrong. He briskly shuttled me through the various offices, quickly showed me where he worked, and then left me to my own devices so he could grab his stuff and we could go.

He could barely look at me. Just the night before, we had talked about him introducing me to his co-workers, showing me the game room, making the fancy craft lattes together. Now, he quickly rushed me from his office to the parking lot, asking me to wait there while he fetched his belongings.

In the car ride to his house, we sat in thick silence. I begged him to tell me what was wrong. I felt so alone in that car. When I finally got the words out of him, he was so ashamed. He simply said, “Your eyeshadow. I was so embarrassed by your eyeshadow.”

This moment stands out to me because what I remember most is not his words but the shame I felt.

It radiated off of him and onto my legs. My legs felt hot, weak, kind of like someone had rubbed icy hot on them. Then my stomach. A dropping feeling. Like I couldn’t eat even if I really wanted to. Then my face. Hot head, hot ears, hot cheeks. Like when you’ve been smiling all day, and your face really hurts, only I wasn’t smiling at all. Frozen in time, my first instinct was to yell. So caught off guard and 19 years old, I was trying to look pretty for this man.

The conversation that followed was bewildering. I could not understand why my wearing eyeshadow had changed our entire day. He tried to explain that he didn’t want his co-workers to know he was dating a girl that wore glitter eyeshadow. I couldn’t understand why that was a problem.

He told me about his shame for the first time, and the world seemed to open up for both of us.

We couldn’t get through to each other, and we both felt so ashamed that we could not sustain an ounce of empathy for the other. I was 19 years old and a sophomore in college. He was 27 and had been working at Google for four years. He was terribly ashamed to be in love with me. I didn’t understand the shame part yet, but I knew he wasn’t very nice to me. He made fun of my major (Feminist Studies), made fun of my parents (reformed hippies), made fun of my beliefs (totally in the works). Now he was making fun of my eyeshadow, except he wasn’t laughing. I couldn’t decide if I had done something wrong or if he was totally crazy.

I had a different boyfriend that never wanted to drink with me. For the longest time, I didn’t understand why. We would go to parties and he would barely have a sip. I would be plastered and on the floor, and he would continue handing me drinks, but never finish a whole one himself. At parties, in front of all our friends, he would make fun of me. Roll his eyes when I did outrageous things, or talk loudly about how stupid I was being.

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The first time he really got drunk with me, I started to understand. We got back home, and he started crying. In the wee hours, he told me about his shame for the first time, and the world seemed to open up for both of us. “I’m so ashamed, Maya. I’m so ashamed.” And I felt his words in the deepest way I knew how. We cried together for hours, and I learned about his pain, and I held it in my hands and in my heart, and I felt so much love for this man that it took over every part of me, and suddenly all our trouble made sense. And I was so excited the next morning to start this new open journey together. 

But the next morning, that part of him was gone. He didn’t want to talk about the tears, and he didn’t want to talk about the stories we had shared, and the intensity of love that flew through us was gone because he was so ashamed. And so he became cold, and I was left to hold that experience all alone, and I didn’t know what to do with it.

I didn't have to really face my shame until I was truly alone for the first time.

This became a theme in our story. If we drank or did drugs together, or if it was particularly late at night and we were sleep-deprived, a new kind of man would emerge before me and this new man would share the deepest, saddest, most beautiful stories I had ever heard. And for a moment, I could really feel him, without the layers of shame that settled as though they were a part of him. But when the alcohol wore off, or we slept, or the moment was no longer ripe, that part of him disappeared, and I was left to hold all of his sadness and all of the knowing, and he could slip deeply into the sweater of shame he had knitted for himself.

It took me a while to learn we all have shame. For a long time, I was married to this idea that I didn’t have any. Shame was for other people: for Patricks and Google boyfriends and boyfriends who wouldn’t get drunk. Shame was for my grandparents and Christian ladies and people in books. I was a sex-ed counselor. I was loud. wasn’t afraid to talk to strangers. I didn’t have any shame. This was only bolstered by the men in my life whose shame seemed to take up the entire room. Mine paled in comparison and ceased to exist … or so I thought.

I didn’t have to really face my shame until I was truly alone for the first time.

At first, I didn’t know what the feeling was. It had tendrils, strange hair, a lisp. It crawled into me, making a home out of my stomach, gnawing at everything. I was so freaked out. This feeling in my stomach was one I had never known before. I ran, screamed, cried, hid from it. What the f*ck!?! The feeling roared. It laughed. It exploded. It mocked me. I thought maybe I would be sick. It pressed into every part of me. I could feel it breathing.

I told my therapist about this, and she laughed. “Why don’t you get curious about it?”

Okay. It reared its head for the next few days. When it got to a point that I could not take it a second longer, I decided to ask it. What are you?!?! I screamed, I yelled, I pleaded, I begged. I was humbled. I knew nothing but a desire for the feeling to stop. I reached out my hand and grasped for it and begged it to stop, and if not stop, begged it to at least show its head. Introduce yourself.

And after several moments, the tendrils began to unfurl. It was green. Strange hair turned soft, and shame began pouring into me. It slipped into my toes and ran up my legs and covered me totally. And I looked in the mirror and realized it was my own — not a man’s and not anyone else’s.

It’s a very scary feeling, to watch my shame pour out of my throat. Shame I didn’t know I had. It’s scary and new, to claim ownership of it. And the newness is important because finally, finally, it gets to be mine. I feel like the years of holding the shame for others are done. Aside from being painful, they were good years, but it’s finally time to do my own digging.

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Maya Novak-Herzog is a PhD student at Northwestern University, studying consent, sexual behavior, and relationships. Along with working on her doctorate, she writes about shame, vulnerability, and love on her blog which can be found @mayanh on Medium. She is a failed plant mom and burgeoning chess master. 

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.